DONALDSONVILLE — Lauded Monday as a longtime parish employee who may be from Louisiana but has “a heart as big as Texas,” newly seated Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa promised Monday to bring transparency, unified government and “servant leadership” as chief executive of the fast-growing parish.
With wife, Selma, and their family, along with Ascension Parish resident former Gov. Edwin Edwards, U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, and a host of Ascension’s political elite watching in a packed Parish Courthouse in Donaldsonville, Matassa took the oath of office from state District Judge Tess Percy Stromberg.
“Your parish leadership team is committed to serving citizens, not feathering our political hat for the next election. We will always do what is right, not what is self-serving,” Matassa said in remarks later.
The 11 members of the Parish Council, including three new members — Bill Dawson, Aaron Lawler and John Cagnolatti — also were sworn in Monday, by Ascension Parish Court Judge Marilyn Lambert.
Matassa, a five-term Gonzales city councilman who stepped down from that post Monday, defeated Gonzales surveyor Clint Cointment by 117 votes in the Nov. 21 runoff to replace four-term Parish President Tommy Martinez. Matassa was also the top vote-getter of a five-man field in the Oct. 24 primary race.
Matassa is only the fourth person to be elected parish president in Ascension and the second Republican in a former Democratic stronghold that, like the state, has trended toward more independent and Republican voters for years.
Martinez served as parish president from 1994-96, 1996-2000, 2008-12 and 2012-16, the first three terms as a Democrat and the fourth as “other party.” Ronnie Hughes served as a Republican parish president from 2008-12, and Harold Marchand was elected parish president as a Democrat, serving from 2004-08.
Along with the five other parishwide elected posts, Matassa as parish president completes a Republican sweep of those six offices in Ascension for the first time in generations. Matassa was a longtime Democrat who counted on Democratic votes this fall and switched parties twice before entering the parish president’s race in February.
Before the swearing-in, Republican state Rep. Johnny Berthelot, the former longtime mayor of Gonzales who worked several years with Matassa on the City Council, and others spoke about Matassa’s big heart and willingness to help people during his years in government and in business. Matassa picked up on the ideal of serving others, or “servant leadership,” as a theme for his new administration.
“This is the only pathway to true success, and I feel Ascension Parish government can elevate its effectiveness using this approach to leadership,” Matassa said. “We will lead in the way we serve others, serve excellence and serve citizens.”
Matassa said that while the parish has a bright economic future, parish government faces many challenges, including improving infrastructure, upgrading departmental technology and trying to implement effective cost-cutting and better problem-solving by parish employees.
Matassa, a Donaldsonville native with deep ties to the West Bank city that is Ascension’s parish seat, said he expects all parish employees to serve taxpayers and each other, to work cooperatively and to improve communication with other local governments.
“We are one parish. We need one vision. The Mississippi River divides us physically, but we must become one,” he said.
Matassa said he also plans to expand transparency in government to the point that, he said, “secrets are now effectively outlawed.”
Matassa said the past is “over and done with” and called for “boldness,” not blame, in addressing challenges such as roads and regional sewage treatment that were the major themes in the fall election campaign.
Already freighted with emotion, Monday’s inauguration carried extra punch for Matassa as his son, Nick, who was seriously burned in a chemical plant fire during the campaign in early September, was on hand in a wheelchair.
In thanking campaign backers, Matassa became choked up at the thought of the support from his family and his wife, whom he called his “rock,” to continue the campaign after his son’s injury.
He told those who did not support him that he was elected “to serve everyone and to forget about political paybacks,” a line that drew applause.
Martinez, who is Matassa’s lifelong friend and became the first parish president in 1994, did not seek a fifth term.
The Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office received Matassa’s letter Monday resigning from the Gonzales City Council, said Meg Casper, spokeswoman for the secretary.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.